“What is it you like about this house so much,” asks M (Rooney Mara), insisting through her bemused expression that C (Casey Affleck) must respond. “History,” he says. They remain in disagreement. The ghost wanders through time, reflecting on past memories shared in their small countryside home. It’s a strange scene, and one that’s shot with the emotional sensitivity of a Spike Jonze movie, but it’s one of the only times that love and time were captured to such a moving degree.
The appropriately short A Ghost Story follows the life after death motif in the sudden death of M’s boyfriend, C. And the thing about death is that some things remain unresolved, if maybe a bit more mysterious than urgent. Death has been depicted and questioned in different ways, even though nobody *really* knows what it looks like. We don’t even know what it sounds like. Which is why David Lowery doesn’t attempt to answer those broken questions, rather, he grapples with what it means to be dead, a ghost.
The film begins with the loving couple flirting on their small living room couch as they cuddle under the romantic darkness of their isolated home. M notes the abrupt noises of the house often heard at nighttime, as she glances over at the mysterious white glow by the living room door. It’s ignored, as though some houses naturally live under a ghostly atmosphere, considering the deep history of each family that has come before.
M wants to leave in search of new opportunities in the city, but C is fixed on staying because of their valuable history. Unfortunately, M would have her way in the disturbing event of her husband’s death. What follows is a tragic tale of reconciliation between love and time. C is resurrected from his deathbed as a Ghost, invisible to the naked eye (not for the audience but the people in the film), and is burdened with the grief of losing someone who’s still alive.
Normally, there is nothing more tragic than losing a loved one to death, but A Ghost Story bravely asks whether the grief of watching someone move on is more destructive than having to move on from death itself. This is best demonstrated in one of the film’s most talked about scenes in which Rooney Mara eats an entire pie within a five-minute take. In the background, a tall and frail ghost watches from a distance as though its heart is ready to leap out in the hopes of comforting the once loving wife. Some hated the scene for its long duration – seemingly lacking purpose – but the strong effect is that of climaxing grief and hopelessness.
A Ghost Story is at its best when it exercises patience, examining small bouts of naturalistic grief in the form of emotionally nuanced performances. It all builds into one great moment half-way through the movie in which the music swells as M drives away from home. The film could end as of that moment and still receive the same review. What comes next is similar to that of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in its provocative finale.
But really, A Ghost Story, even as it travels back in time, and portrays death to that of being a ghost, is a story about grieving the loss of a loved one and having to reflect on the relationship’s history. David Lowery has achieved what could only be described as a masterpiece, and one that explores love and time like no other film.